How we're thinking about sustainability in the business and trying to use resources more mindfully
As small business owners, we love that our values can carry across seamlessly between home and work. We have control over how we run the business and what we focus on. For us, a big part of this is, and always has been, doing things the right way for the World and the environment - and then making this work from a business perspective.
We believe very strongly that everything we do has a ripple effect, whether that be positive or negative, and we are trying our best to create positive ripples.
In 2021 we heard a sustainability consultant talk about things businesses could do to be more sustainable, but with the emphasis on this bringing in more customers. We would dispute this. For us, this is the only way to do things.
The list below is in no particular order but gives you an idea of some of the things we're thinking about.
This is a biggie. Lots of people complain nowadays about the excess packaging in supermarkets, but this is a journey Chris has been on for many years now since working in a refill food co-op in Australia and seeing what's possible. So in our personal lives we've been talking and thinking about this since about 2010.
As a business we do still get vegetables wrapped in plastic as plastic does help veg keep better, and one of our big pacakging issues are the black mushroom boxes. However, we address this as best we can by reusing as often as possible, either in the business or at home. At least one of our big suppliers has started using home compostable bags, despite the higher price (we haven't yet been able to find any we can afford at the low numbers we need), and some of the soft fruit farms have moved away from plastic punnets towards pulp ones.
We aren't packaging experts by any means, and one of our concerns is that something that LOOKS better ie paper may not be if a) the veg ends up decaying quicker and getting wasted and/or b) actually more resources are used in making that product and it can't be re-used. But we are on the look-out for anything that we can learn and do what we can for now to limit as much as we can and re-use. Recycling is a bit of a last resort.
To give an idea of where we're at with waste, we have a normal sized domestic black bin for non-recyclable plastic that the business generates, including any packaging from suppliers. This is emptied once every 4 weeks, and if we forget to put it out we can actually last 8 weeks at a push.
We reuse all our boxes for delivering customer vegboxes and and any that are the wrong size we recycle or use as a mulch in the garden. We try to only use boxes that have no glue as we are now starting to see bits of glue in our compost where the boxes have rotted down but the glue hasn’t …… grrr.
MINDFUL ENERGY CONSUMPTION
Like packaging, this is something that Chris has been thinking about for many years now. He has a spreadsheet going back 15+ years monitoring our household energy consumption, and is reguarly reviewing ways that we can reduce our consumption without negatively affecting how we live (yes, we have solar panels!). So it's no surprise that this is a big focus in the business too. Some of the things we've done include:
In our house/garden:
We choose to live in a tiny house - less room for things we don’t need and requires much less energy to heat
Solar panels, including a solar i-boost
Back boiler on logburner
Hemp lime insulation on interior walls of old stone cottage
Insulated electric hot bed in mini greenhouse to reduce heat wastage for propagating seeds in late winter
Use Bulb - 100% renewable energy
In the business:
Our energy consumption is pretty low for the business currently, but as we grow we'll be looking at what we can do to ensure energy is as low as it can be and that aren't wasting any needlessly. We are currently with Ecotricity whose energy is 100% green and who puts money back into building new sources of green energy, investing in the future.
Tied in with energy, we do try to keep our fuel consumption down where possible - although with family living in the South of England and a young child who we want to take on adventures clearly there will always be compromises to be made. We try to cycle or walk to the field from our house if we don't need to carry veg or tools. We also record our fuel usage - if you don’t measure it you can’t see if you are getting better! We operate the van at near 100% capacity on 2 out of 3 of our rounds.. This is the most efficient use of fossil fuel.
In 2019, we changed for a 2013 Caddy Maxi diesel (1.9litre) to a 1999 Suzuki Carry (650cc petrol) aka the 'little mini van'. Whilst the Suzuki's fuel economy is not quite as good as the Caddy, the fact that it has a top speed of 45mph means we can’t use it for longer trips..we have to plan those using our one family car. So by changing the vehicles available to us, we've purposefully limited ourselves to having one vehicle for anything other than very local journeys. (When we had the Caddy, we were able to both do long trips at the same time, thereby using more fuel)
Our aim is to go 100% electric, but the costs are a big barrier for us at the moment.
Delivery round: When we took on the business we were travelling vast distances with an area that included Wrexham, Corwen, LLanrwst, Buckley and Rhuddlan. We made the hard decision to drop a lot of the outlying customers and reduced our delivery areas, being very strict as to where we take on new customers. Our customer area is now very small. As well as reducing fuel and time, this now means that the range of all the electric vans on the market is now within our scope, which it wasn’t previously.
Over time, we may extend our delivery area, but it will be with one eye clearly on our footprint. Ultimately, we believe that there is scope for more businesses like ours in North Wales each with their own little areas which they deliver to...but that's a story for another time ;)
Walking tractor: For some of the jobs we do on the garden, a mechanical aid reduces our work considerably. We have a walking tractor and we average about 15 litres of petrol a year!
In 2020 we watched a film called In Our Hands which made us think more carefully about what we're growing and where we source our seeds. There is a link here for anyone to watch it for free. In 2021 we started buying a lot of our seeds from Real Seeds in South Wales.
All our suppliers are organically certified. We know that many of them are on a similar journey to us in terms of reducing one-use packaging and wanting to leave the land they grow on in a better state than when they started.
REDUCING FOOD WASTAGE
We order from our wholesaler about 8 days before delivery, which means that the farms that we are buying from only harvest what they’ve already sold. We spend a great deal of time planning our boxes (juggling what we've got in the field to harvest with what's available from elsewhere, etc) and only order what we need. This is one of the reasons we are quite strict about our 10 day cancellation policy as it's all about reducing waste. Supermarkets and fast food places, as well as mobile phones and our constant busy-ness often means we want, and expect, flexibility and everything on tap. We want to be able to change our minds and our plans on the spot. But this does lead to increased waste and this is not what we're about.
One of the reasons we started selling veg on a Friday from a shop-front was that we wanted to minimise wastage, as we inevitably do sometimes have veg left from the boxes and the field, however hard we try.
At times we have donated any left-over fruit and veg to some fab people in Denbigh who cook meals for the homeless in Wrexham. As a final resort, leaves may sometimes find their way to lucky rabbits, guinea pigs and hens.
Way before we knew we were going to be taking on a veg box business, before we moved to Prion, Chris went on a course with the brilliant Charles Dowding of no dig veg gardening fame. He wasn't quite so well known back then but Chris immediately could see the sense and logic in his no dig approach and started using his techniques. In a way this was probably an advantage as having never grown veg before he didn't have to unlearn things that weren't part of no dig, like rotivating. We have only ever grown using no dig methods and after 3 growing seasons are seeing the benefits in terms of reduced weeds and some great veg. Still lots to learn but a soil consultant who visited us in summer 2021 was complimentary about the soil quality and what we were doing -and that's good enough for us!
PAYING LIVING WAGE
Most of the business is run by us, Chris and Liz, however we do have help in the field, with harvesting and with packing boxes and it's a no-brainer to us that we would pay anyone who works for us the real living wage.
BITS AND BOBS IN THE FIELD
Compost: It's sometimes hard to do but we never buy compost containg peat. We use green waste compost to top dress our beds - unfortunately this does include some bits of plastic, but we just have to remove these as we see them.
Plastic: We have stopped using mypex (black plastic mesh) as a mulch or weed suppressent as over time it degrades and we are forever pulling out strands of black plastic from our soil… This will be an ongoing job unfortunately.
Seed trays: We re-use these as much as we can.